“Once there was a tree and she loved a little boy…” is how Silverstein begins his beautiful children’s book. What a terrific first line. What a terrific book.
- The little boy and the tree play together, make crowns from leaves and play hide and go seek. The boy loved the tree and so the tree was happy.
But as time went by and the boy grew older and became interested in other things. As an older man, the boy was more interested in money and things than the tree. So the tree offers the boy his apples so he can sell them and have money. The tree loved the boy.
The boy disappeared after taking the apples but then much later came back telling the tree he wanted a house to raise a family. The tree had no house for the boy, but offered him his branches for wood to build a house. The tree loved the boy.
The boy took the branches and used them to make a house. And they boy didn’t come back for a long time. When the boy came back he explained to the tree that life was not fun. He wanted a boat to go far away. The tree then offered the boy his trunk to make a boat because the tree loved the boy.
After a long time the boy came back and was an old man. The tree was a stump now. The old man was too old to collect leaves, his teeth were gone so he couldn’t eat apples, and he was too old to swing on the branches.
The boy was so old and tired that he asked the tree if he could sit on his stump, and the tree invited the boy to rest, because the tree loved the boy.
It’s a wonderful and sad story about the nature of love, about how true love holds up even while being used. It’s a violent and painful story depending on how you look at it.
What many people don’t know about that story is that Brennan Manning, who passed away on Friday of last week, and Shel Silverstein met when they were young and according to Manning, stayed in touch. Later, after Shel began to write and Manning became a priest, they had a conversation about God and God’s love. Manning asked Silverstein what he thought God’s love felt like. Silverstein thought about it for a while but had no answer. Much later, Silverstein got in touch with Manning and gave him a copy of The Giving Tree saying the book was his answer to Manning’s question.
Manning told the story so many times you have to wonder if it didn’t become his answer, too. I’ve abused God and He forgives me, Manning seems to be saying.
Manning wrestled with God as much as he walked with God. He seemed like the kind of man who would constantly tug at God’s shirt tails and ask, for the thousandth time, is it true? only to run into the village and explain to the rest of us that it was. Then to return, tug on God’s shirt tail and ask again, is it true?
Manning’s ability to stir the imagination of singers, songwriters, playwrights and poets was fierce. Many books, albums, bands and films exist because Brennan Manning convinced the artist of the safety of grace. He was a pivotal voice for me as I began to write. We got together more than a few times. He could be warm and open for one meeting, then cold and crotchety for the next. He taught me I could be the same, that I could be myself.
What gave Manning his magic was not some gift or skill, but his honest and constant wrestling with Jesus. To Manning, life was not about religion or rules or gaining fame or power; it was only about wrestling with Jesus. Is this grace of yours really true? I believe it and don’t believe it at the same time. You’re saying it’s true, but it’s entirely unnatural and inhuman to be so loving.
He wrote much of his best work in his later years. I like to picture him with a pad and pen, sitting on a stump.
Brennan Manning, called back. Done wrestling. Knows it’s true. Can’t write about it now. May we wrestle half as well.